Study day for Ghent museum guides: Navigating diversity | MSK Gent
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Study day for Ghent museum guides: Navigating diversity

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Since 2019, public-facing staff at ten museums in Ghent (STAM, Huis van Alijn, Museum of Industry, SMAK, MSK, Design, GUM, Museum Dr. Guislain, the World and Garden of Kina, Historische Huizen) have united as the TOP working group. In this learning network, the members’ common aim is to work and exchange knowledge on the themes of accessibility, outreach and participation.

In 2020 the TOP working group began using a methodology focusing on equal opportunities. Together with the city of Ghent’s Local Social Policy Service, the museums began a programme to address the issues of poverty, diversity and equal opportunities. Two clear action points emerged:

- to generate support in the Ghent museums for examining themes around diversity and inclusion;

- to work towards an inclusive policy towards guide staff.

As the first step towards a more inclusive staff policy for guides, the working group sent a broad survey to all guides working in Ghent museums so it could form a picture of the current staff population. The aim was to find out about the degree of diversity among guide staff and what kind of support and training was needed around the theme of diversity, including how to respond effectively to increasing diversity.

The Ghent museums joined forces to organise a study day for guides in the MSK on 7 February 2024. The guide teams devised their own learning goal: how to acknowledge and address diversity.

The day began with a keynote speech on inclusion in museums, followed by a series of inspiring workshops full of advice and suggestions that guides could use in practice. Hildegarde Van Genechten, an adviser for participation and education at the Flemish Institution for Cultural Heritage (FARO), rounded off the day. Her conclusions are set out below, and can also be found (in Dutch) on the FARO website: https://faro.be/blogs/hildegarde-van-genechten/gidsen-met-oog-voor-diversiteit.

The future is inclusive

Celebrate every voice: that was the message keynote speaker Sana Sellami had for those present. As a strategist and an expert on diversity and inclusion, she reminded participants that museums all around the globe have always needed to adapt to a changing world. That means they have had to take a more inclusive approach, and transform themselves from collections of curiosities for privileged visitors to museums that aim to serve a broad audience. Today, many do their best to welcome everyone. But there’s still work to do, because there are still plenty of people who don’t think of museums as places where they are welcome or can feel at home.

If we are to change this, then it is up to us, museum staff and guides, to become much more aware of our own frames of reference and to acknowledge that other perspectives also exist. Each of our visitors has their own specific and multiple identities. That means that we can’t trust assumptions and preconceptions that we may have about them. And the solution is miraculously simple: we need to talk. Because that’s how you, as a guide, can find out about the ideas and interests that visitors have, and connect with them. In other words: listen and learn.

Connect with people

In her afternoon session, Barbara Struys (Gidsenhumus) helped participants find ways to ensure their work is meaningful. Because why else would visitors want to listen to a guide? As a guide, how can you help visitors connect with the objects you show them? And how do you link facts to meaning?

To answer these questions, Barbara turned to the philosophy of Freeman Tilden. Since the publication of his book Interpreting Our Heritage in 1957, he's regarded as the pioneer of heritage interpretation. Awakening attention and curiosity is the first step, and one way of doing that is through providing a sensory experience: letting people feel, taste or smell something, for example. An experience likes this helps to sharpen a visitor’s focus. Another way is to look for universal or common values or themes during your work. This promotes recognition and acknowledgement, which is also essential. This session also stressed the importance of engaging in dialogue as a means of connecting with visitors.

Use clear language

For many museum visitors, Dutch may not be their first language or the one they speak at home. Consequently, the Ghent museums give full priority to using clear language. Lisa Van Else (Amal, the Ghent agency for integration civic integration) offered some tips on this during the first session.

Particularly when people are still learning Dutch, it’s important to appear physically calm and accepting, to speak carefully and slowly and not overload the listener with information. Use short, active sentences and plain words. It’s also important to ask a lot of questions, since that’s how you can tell whether your message is coming across clearly. It’s also the way to find out what the other person thinks about something. Support your words with non-verbal communication such as gestures. If you are interested in more language advice for accessible writing and speaking, you can find it on the website of the Flemish government and in FARO’s Erfgoedwijzer.

Gender-inclusive guiding

Expert Senne Misplon had plenty of information to offer on gender diversity based on personal experience as a trans man. The main focus of the session was on overcoming stereotypical thinking about gender. Senne invited participants to think about when gender might play a role during a tour. When you meet a new group, for example, you’ll want to welcome them. It’s just as easy to say ‘Hello, everyone’ instead of ‘Hello, ladies and gentlemen’.

We use language to define the world around us. That means we can use it to acknowledge a broad gender spectrum and to transcend classic binary limitations of gender. Another way to acknowledge and, above all, normalise the gender spectrum is to add pronouns to your email signature: he/him, she/her, they/them, for example. And if you’re afraid of getting it wrong, Senne has this to say: it’s okay to make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. But do try to be an ally as much as you can, whether it is in your role as a guide, friend, family member or colleague.

Be aware of prejudice and preconceptions

‘Me? I’m not prejudiced!’ We all think that. And yet … we all still have our unconscious preconceptions. The fact is that our brains work selectively so they can protect us from an overload of information. We can’t change that. What we can do is become aware of our unconscious biases. Our frame of reference is formed by our upbringing, education, experiences and more, and it determines our view of the world, our opinions and our actions.

It’s important to become aware of this frame of reference and of conscious and unconscious preconceptions. A good illustration of how different people can perceive things differently is language, and specifically vocabulary. Some people may not know that certain words have a very particular meaning for other people. In other words, depending on their frame of reference, different people perceive words in very different ways.

Katrijn D’hamers and Elien Doesselaere, both from FARO, used various exercises to help participants at this session become aware of their own frames of reference and their preconceptions. You can find these exercises in the Erfgoedwijzer. Katrijn en Elien both believe that communication in museums should be culture-sensitive and bring people together, with an open mind and respect for every person’s own frame of reference. Listening and showing empathy and flexibility are crucial skills.

Focus on poverty and exclusion

Emma Rappé and volunteers from the non-profit organisation De Zuidpoort provided some illuminating insights into poverty and exclusion. Based on discussion statements and case studies, they helped participants look at the world from the point of view of someone experiencing poverty or exclusion. It quickly became clear how a setback (such as loss of income) can spark a landslide of negative effects in other areas, from health to housing and more.

Mainly, though, the exercises helped people reflect on their own thinking. As a society, how do we treat people living in poverty? We are often too quick to judge. This session offered a key piece of advice that was very similar to one from the previous session: don’t base your opinions solely on your own circumstances and experience. If you’re interested in finding out more about poverty - not just how widespread it is, but how we can help solve it, we can refer you to We zijn er, De Zuidpoort’s informative podcast about poverty.